Living with and teaching my brother Magesh

Living with and teaching my brother Magesh

By: Siphokazi Magadla*

I was surprised when my brother chose to study Politics at university. I was even more surprised that he chose to study it at the university that I teach in. Unlike me, a person who is forever animated by national and global events, my brother channels his emotions mostly to his immediate environment. It always seemed to puzzle him that I would get so worked up by the utterances of our colourful president in South Africa or a stranger’s opinion piece in a Sunday paper.  Being a spectator and watching him transition from high school to university life has been one of the things that have been at the centre of my 2012 experience and hence I choose to highlight our relationship in this end of the year reflection.

At the start of the year I tried to be as honest as possible with him about the different life that he was about to embark on. I told him that it took me six months to feel comfortable at university. For one, unlike high school where you have about 40 to 45 classmates, at university, classes compose of hundreds of students. These large numbers can make the learning environment very impersonal.  In addition, more than often other students in the lectures and tutorials always seem to be smarter and socially more popular, more beautiful and all around more of what you don’t have. I told him ‘All you can do is to not let it overwhelm you, adapt at your own pace and eventually you will find your voice’. He accepted the advice although maybe he thought I was taking things too seriously especially because orientation week seemed to be full of partying and the good life that usually characterises many anecdotes about university life.

When the real business of taking class started it was very difficult as a sister to watch him go through the very overwhelming experience I had warned him about. He felt that his classmates did not take him seriously; they laughed when he spoke, this ‘Rhodes’ life and ‘Rhodes things’ as he would say, seemed to delegitimize all that he knew. Back home in the township where we live he is a popular guy and I’m simply known as “Magesh’s sister”.

He read less, we talked less, he went out more and my encouragements for him to focus turned into angry verbal exchanges. I would remind him how lucky he was to be here and that we were all sacrificing a lot for him to be here. At that time I did not think how heavy that would have been. When I was an undergraduate I was aware of the sacrifices that came with attending a good university, so failure was not an option. I lived in the library, I asked for help and clearly if I could do that, why couldn’t he?

I was wrong. I was wrong to expect that our journeys would be the same. When he looked at me he did not really see encouragement but fear. Fear of what his failure would mean for our family. It is undeniably a terrible weight for anyone to carry. A male friend who I asked to mentor my brother was quick to warn me that no one wants to be perceived as a problem!

It was only when I let go and gave him his space that interesting things started happening. My detached brother started referring to some of his friends as “comrades” and “leadership”, not just his “niggers”. Then his room which had been very minimalist in décor was suddenly pasted with pictures of Biko, Gandhi, King Jr, across Drake and Rick Ross. He devoured my copy of Cornel West’s memoir calling West “le master” (the main man). On a particular Thursday while I was doing my research work at home I was surprised to see that he was in his room reading a pocket book history of UmKhonto WeSizwe by Janet Cherry. He was so engrossed in the book he never came for breakfast or lunch. After finishing exams, he packed Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Fareed Zakaria’s Post-American World to read over the holidays. I had to stop him from taking the copies of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and West’s Race Matters because I need to use them.

I must also say that teaching him and more than 200 of his classmates although nerve wrecking provided an interesting view from which to engage the class. I hoped that I would prove to be a good teacher so that he would not be embarrassed to tell his friends that the person pacing up and down the lecture hall was his sister!  Beyond the superficialities, his presence allowed me to be able to discern when the lecture had gone well, if the concepts were clear or if I needed to explain further.

At a personal level it was good to have my brother see what I do since I often struggle to explain to folks back home what it means to teach at university. The memory is for both of us to share, it is something I cherish and helps me feel understood.

His personal and academic challenges have reminded me that sadly in terms of institutional culture, my university, a former white university, has not transformed that much. The alienation and delegitimization that I felt as a first year student in 2004 coming from a working class background was mirrored in my brother’s struggles in 2012. His personal journey as an unlikely politics student has been a lesson to me that many people stumble upon their destiny in interesting and unexpected ways. Like many of my friends I was the first person in my family to get a university degree.  That my brother has just finished his first year while our youngest brother is entering university next year means that going to university is no longer an exception but is gradually becoming a norm for black families, despite the challenges.

*Siphokazi Magadla is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum Contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.

Siphokazi Magadla

Siphokazi Magadla is a Lecturer and PhD student with the Department for Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. She is a Fulbright scholar holding a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Ohio University, USA. She was previously named one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans.

7 Responses to Living with and teaching my brother Magesh

  1. Sister, I am glad that you wrote and shared this reflection with us. Most importantly, I like that through the presence of your brother in the classroom you got affirmed and began to “feel understood”.

    One name that came to mind in reading this piece is Maya Angelou, when she described her reaching out to her male friends in raising his son, Guy. For the life of me, I can’t remember the book. However, the point is that you expressing a similar sentiment to Maya, makes me wonder if I, as a sister, have a language to properly engage with my own brothers? Is it even possible for me to acquire that language or when the proverbial hits the fan I would have to reach out to my male friends?

    The above are just a few questions that come to mind. I hope some of the male readers in particular will help in answering them.

    Kazi, again thanks for sharing sister 😉

  2. Kazi, your life has always been an inspiration to me, thank you for sharing this important part of your journey as a sister, as a teacher and as a woman. A bravo to your brother for making the best of this opportunity in growth, I know many who would not have the same courage as he. All the best to him, may he keep growing from strength to strength and most importantly may the other young men around him learn from the beginning of his journey.

  3. Lovely reflection Siphokazi, enjoyed reading it! There is a lot of pressure when you have an over-achiever coming before you, can’t imagine the pressure if that family member is also going to be your lecturer at University. My (older) sister too is the “overachiever” in the family, and I know all about those “heated exchanges” to realize the wealth of opportunities hidden in the sacrifices they made for me to study, and as I get older I realise their intention, and that they always genuinely wanted the best for me, in fact I sometimes wish I had listened sooner. But to also steal from Mathe, now looking back, in Maya Angelou I can safely say “wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now”.

    I love that you recognized the fear in him to falter, or detract from the journey that you’ve had and that you managed to let go and allow him to take his own shape. We can’t all have the same journeys travel the same road, the key is to not lose the lesson from where life takes us.

    Congratulations to him on his first year! First year is a lot to adjust to for anyone. Its even worse at a place like Rhodes where a lot of the students come from the same sister/brother schools. Think for me as the only person from my school in my first year at RU, there was an ocean fear that also took months for me to overcome. Failure to fail, thinking about the exorbitant fees and all that was sacrificed just to pay the then R21,000 MIP for me to register etc. Think it wasn’t only till my second year where I felt I deserved to be there, and that I had earned my spot, despite not coming from highly distinguished schools like my classmates.

    As he moves into his second year too, I’m sure the brothership he’s built with his “comrades” and hard lessons in adjusting to 1st year will ensure a successful second year and life in the academy.

    And congrats to you two on your second year of teaching. Continue inspiring :)

  4. Wow Wow, speechless for years jazzmate! thanks a lot for sharing your experiences guys, not only you spokes- but all the Bokamoso ‘intellectual mercenaries’. I’m really grateful that I have come across you guys. all the best- lets not forget about the mother-land-Africs

  5. Really loved this piece, thank you. As a teacher at the same university, coming from a very different background, I really appreciate the insight from the different gazes of a staff member reflecting on student experience reflecting back on your own experiences. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for this beautiful piece, Kazi, and for what you teach me about teaching and being. You have highlighted so beautifully the lessons for us all to take from what must have been some difficult moments. I think you BOTH have interesting and inspiring journeys ahead of you!

  7. Thank you all for the comments! It is daunting to place your life as the object of investigation and sometimes it also borders on self indulgence. I’m still learning a lot about rising up to the feminist challenge of locating the personal as the political. To respond to your question Mathe regarding the boundaries that can exist between brothers and sisters, I would say yes at times I did/do feel as if perhaps had he been a sister maybe communication would be easier. But I’m also sceptical of that view now as I am aware of many sisters whose relationship is fraught with misunderstanding. In the end I think the process of growth requires a ‘village’ as it were, both men and women are instrumental in our processes of growth. I think for all of us the process is about whether we have been opened to varying possibilities of what it means to be a self-actualised woman and man. So as much as I continue to rely on my male friends as a window to understand my brother’s world view, I suspect that I will also need my male community to provide my niece with the different ways in which men ‘perform’ masculinity so that she may choose from the menu intelligently.

    Maybe what is even more daunting now is to recognise that this process of growth is continuous messy process full of contradictions. I agree with John Holloway that even this moment of consciousness is but “an exploration in the creation of dignity. Asking we walk.” I thank you all.

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